Be careful with mail-order gardening

Daniel Gill, Bogren, Richard C.  |  2/2/2009 9:58:39 PM

Get It Growing For 02/13/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

This is the time of year for garden catalogs to arrive in the mail. Mine generally start to arrive in December and continue through February. Most gardeners would likely tell you that mail order is their least preferred way to purchase plants, and I generally agree.

There is nothing like looking at a plant, touching it and carefully inspecting it before you purchase it. This is what we get to do at a local nursery. In addition, anyone who has mail ordered plants sees that, almost always, the plants you get in the mail are smaller than those you would find at a local nursery.

And mail-ordered plants often can be more expensive than plants offered for sale locally. Shipping costs can greatly add to the cost of a mail-order plant.

Finally, whenever possible I prefer to support our local nurseries and garden centers. When I buy locally I know I’m helping to sustain our local businesses, which is important for our local economy.

Given that, why would any of us purchase plants, seeds, bulbs or garden products through the mail? Well, pure and simple, it comes down to availability. Far, far more different kinds of plants and products are available through mail order than could ever be carried by our local nurseries. When you want to grow a particular kind of plant and you cannot find it for sale locally, mail order becomes the way to obtain plants, seeds or bulbs you’re looking for.

The Internet has revolutionized how we find the plants we want. Before we could go online and quickly search for information, the process of finding a source was long, tedious and often frustrating if you could not find a plant locally. Nowadays, it’s simply a matter of typing the name in to a search engine (preferably the Latin name and variety, but the common name often works). When you see the sources revealed by the search, the chance that a business with the plant available will be located near where you live is terribly small. Invariably, you’ll need to mail order the plants, seeds or products.

When purchasing mail-order plants or plant products, you need to be a savvy consumer. Since you cannot see the plants before they arrive at your house, you have to trust that the company will be sending quality merchandise. So dealing with reputable companies is important.

I recently received some information from the Mailorder Gardening Association, a nonprofit association of companies that sell garden products directly to consumers (www.mailordergardening.com). They offer this helpful advice on using gardening catalogs and Web sites:

--Use garden catalogs as planning tools for your spring garden plan. Flip through the catalogs to see what kinds of new plants and products are being offered this year.

--Mark the plants, seeds, tools and garden accessories that you’re interested in with sticky notes. I often look through catalogs with a highlighter in my hand to mark those things I might want to buy.

--Go back through the catalogs and review everything you have flagged with a sticky note. Make a list of all the plants and products that you simply must have. When ordering new types of plants or plants you aren’t familiar with, do your best to research them to see if they are appropriate for our climate. You can waste money on plants not adapted to our mild winters and long, hot, wet summers. Check plants out in references written for the Gulf South, and ask local experts, when possible, before making decisions on what to order.

--Place your orders early. The most popular seeds, plants and new products often sell out quickly. Seeds will usually be shipped early in the season to give you the option of starting them indoors. Plants will be shipped when it’s safe to plant them outdoors based on where you live. It’s a good idea, however, to ask a company to send hardy plants as early as possible because we like to get hardy plants into the ground well ahead of the heat of summer whenever possible.

--Keep a list of all the orders you have placed so you can track the deliveries as they come in. It’s a good idea to photocopy the filled-out order form before you put it in the mail. Also, be sure to print out copies of your order from when ordering online.

--Put the catalogs and copies of the order forms in a safe place so you can refer to them later and easily contact each catalog company if you have questions about your purchases. Remember, too, that most garden catalogs and Web sites have helpful gardening experts that you can contact to get additional gardening information and advice.

Now, at this point you may be feeling decidedly left out because you haven’t gotten any gardening catalogs. Don’t worry. It’s easy enough to visit the Web sites of mail-order companies online and ask them to send you a catalog. They are generally free. In fact, the Web site of the Mailorder Gardening Association includes a list of mail-order gardening catalogs and Web sites, along with a glossary of gardening terms and smart shopping tips.

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Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu  

Editor: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu  

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